One of the stories often told about World War II in Barbados is the torpedoing in broad daylight of the Canadian National Steamship Cornwallis in Carlisle Bay on Friday 11th September 1942 by German U-Boat 514.
That day back in 1942 was when World War II reached Barbados’ shores.
In 1942 the German Navy launched operation Neuland which was intended to disrupt shipping on the Eastern seaboard of the United States of America and the Caribbean. In response, a Royal Navy auxiliary task force, called the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (TRNVR), was stationed in Trinidad and formed a defence for the South Eastern Caribbean. However, despite having mine sweepers and some anti-submarine vessels, the TRNVR served only as a coastal force.
In August of 1942 three fast motor torpedo boats were sent from Trinidad to Barbados to form a protective off-shore deterrent for the U-Boats.
In late August 1942 The Royal Navy also laid an anti-submarine boom net across Carlisle Bay which was completed in early September. Without this anti-submarine boom net the damage to shipping within Carlisle Bay would have been much worse.
In addition to the anti-submarine boom net a harbour patrol was maintained by a speed-boat called the Hazel Y which was armed with a machine-gun and two depth charges and manned by a volunteer crew.
On the afternoon of Friday 11 September 1942 two ships in Carlisle Bay were targeted by German U-Boat 514 captained by Kapitänlieutenant Hans Jürgen Auffermann: the Norwegian Motor Merchant Betancuria (2,696 tons) moored just off the old Eye Hospital and the Canadian National Steamship Cornwallis (5,458 tons) moored opposite the Royal Barbados Yacht Club.
Due to the submarine war against allied shipping, merchant-ships at that time were armed with guns. The crew of the Betancuria and Cornwallis put their guns into action and concentrated their fire on one section of Carlisle Bay. However eyewitnesses noted that the setting sun caused a dazzling effect on the water making targeting the U-Boat impossible.
German U-Boat 514 Kptlt. Auffermann fired a total of six torpedoes at Cornwallis and Betancuria. At 4.37pm Bajan time (22.37 hours U-Boat time), two bow torpedoes were fired, one on each target from a distance of about 3,500 meters, followed by single bow torpedoes on each ship at 4.43pm Bajan time (22.43 hours U-Boat time) and 4.55pm Bajan time (22.55 hours U-Boat time). The U-boat then turned around and at 5.02pm Bajan time (23.02 hours U-Boat time) fired at both targets with its two stern torpedoes from a distance of about 2,200 metres. This time one of the torpedoes hit the Cornwallis. The Betancuria was lucky.
The inhabitants of Bridgetown, Carlisle Bay and the surrounding areas were made aware of the attack by the sound of torpedoes exploding on impact with the anti-submarine boom net, from the guns of both Cornwallis and Betancuria and from the final explosion from the torpedo that hit the Cornwallis.
My Dad would have been nineteen years old was working at Barclays Bank in Broad St. Between the first and last torpedo being fired was about 20 minutes. Dad and others from the bank watched the events unfold from the roof of Barclays Bank, while the Bank Manger “shovelled” the cash into the safe for safe keeping.
My Mum who would have been ten tells me that she remembers hearing the explosions in Strathclyde.
My Mum’s school friend and my Godmother, Doreen Weatherhead, who was also ten at the time, tells me that on Friday 11th September 1942 she was staying with her Godparents at Hythe on the Maxwell Coast. Her god father’s father was the Christ Church Parochial Treasurer. Each day she went down to the beach between 2.30pm and 3pm. There wasn’t much sand on the beach at that time of year. She was playing in the sea with Ann Massey a young girl from next door who was on holiday from Trinidad. There was a big swell and when they looked up there was German U-Boat 514 which had surfaced outside of the reef. My godmother says she could clearly see an officer in the conning tower and two sailors running across the deck. She says she was pretty frightened and she and the Ann got out of the sea without rushing in case they aroused the suspicions of the German sailors and once out of sight rushed back to the Hythe and phoned her father who should have been in barracks. He was not in barracks and was at home with measles. Her father Capt. Weatherhead then phoned both Army units on the coast and Government House. Capt. Weatherhead was told that nobody else had reported anything and that his daughter who was just ten must have made a mistake. Unfortunately a few hours later she was proved to be correct. My Godmother says she has never been able to understand how nobody else in Oistins or down the Maxwell Coast had seen the German U-Boat 514 when it surfaced!
The Cornwallis sustained a strike abreast of her number 2 hold from the last torpedo that had passed through one of four damaged portions of the anti-submarine boom net. A survey of the damage sustained by the Cornwallis reported that a hole some 44 feet long and 14 feet deep had been blown in her side and that considerable internal damage was also done.
The Cornwallis was beached near the Esplanade, lest she sink in the harbour and temporary repairs were made which took two months. In that time her cargo was sold off. My Mum tells me her parents bought her a doll that she had for years that was part of the Cornwallis cargo. It is also reputed that the houses around Burke’s beach were for years painted battle-ship-grey using paint from the Cornwallis.
Once temporary repairs had been made, the Cornwallis was then towed to Trinidad in December 1942 where further repairs were made. The Cornwallis was later towed to Mobile, arriving on 24 Jan 1943 where she was repaired and returned to service in August 1943.
The torpedoing of the Cornwallis on the afternoon of Friday 11th September 1942 by German U-Boat 514 is remembered by Bajans as the dark day in 1942 when World War II reached Barbados’ shores. History might not have been made if a report of a surfacing German sub from a ten year old girl had been taken seriously and the three fast motor torpedo boats sent from Trinidad to Barbados which were in harbour at the time had been launched as a deterrent.
For further information see:
- The U-Boat War in the Caribbean by Gaylord T.M. Kelshall, pages 177 to 180.
- Honours and Awards to Canadian Merchant Seamen of WWII.
- The Canadian Naval Chronicle 1939-1945, Chapter 65, page 240.
Capt. Weatherhead by Doreen Weatherhead
During the war Dad was Signals Officer, a First Lieutenant, and then Captain and just at the end of the War or shortly after he became a Major – he never was made a Colonel as after the war Joe Connell came back and he was already a Colonel.
As Adjutant during the war he was a Captain and that was when we had to move into Barracks, actually the Adjutant’s quarters was the house right in front of the Battalion HQ (the old fort) and the Sea Scouts had their HQ in the basement of our house and Signals offices were in the basement of the Fort just across from our house – Harold and I had a whale of a time – when they had practices of what we had to do if B’dos was invaded, we were woken up in the middle of the night and Dad never told us when this would happen although as Adjutant he organised it. Although it was a very serious time and we never knew if the Germans might appear, it was quite exciting for Harold and I, living in the Barracks compound aged 10 and 8 when we moved in and stayed there until the end of the war.
I went to Queens College in Sept.1942 (if I remember correctly) and that was when I met your Mother [Dorothy Boyce].
Awards for bravery associated with the torpedoing of the Cornwallis by U-514 off Barbados, on 11 September 1942 were bestowed on:
- FREEMAN, Claude, Able Seaman – British Empire Medal (BEM) – CN Steamship ‘Cornwallis’ – Awarded as per Canada Gazette of 8 January 1944 and London Gazette of 3 June 1943.
- GATES, Harold, Boatswain – British Empire Medal (BEM) – CN Steamship ‘Cornwallis’ – Awarded as per Canada Gazette of 10 June 1944 and London Gazette of 8 June 1944. Home: Halifax, Nova Scotia.
- GRIFFITH, Edwin, Chief Engineer – Officer – Order of the British Empire (OBE) – CN Steamship ‘Cornwallis’ – Awarded as per Canada Gazette of 8 January 1944 and London Gazette of 1 January 1944. Home: Montreal, Quebec.
Mr. Edwin Griffith was sent to Barbados after the torpedoing to complete temporary repairs, and was Chief Engineer aboard when ship was towed from Barbados to Mobile, Alabama for permanent repairs. All machinery being out of order, the ship was a “dead” tow.
- JENKINS, Henry Hubert, Chief Engineer – Officer – Order of the British Empire (OBE) – Canadian National Steamship Cornwallis – Awarded as per Canada Gazette of 8 January 1944 and London Gazette of 1 January 1944.
- MURRAY, John James, Carpenter – British Empire Medal (BEM) – Canadian National Steamship ‘Cornwallis’ – Awarded as per Canada Gazette of 10 June 1944 and London Gazette of 8 June 1944. Home: Glasgow, Nova Scotia.
Below is the citation from Chief Engineer Jenkin’s OBE award for exceptional devotion to duty as Chief Engineer when his vessel was torpedoed and he performed valuable salvage duties until relieved. The details in the citation explain what actually happened aboard the Cornwallis in the the aftermath of the torpedoing
Nature of Attack: Torpedo attack by disguised enemy submarine on Harbour Defence Obstruction. The earlier torpedoes damaged the net, leaving the Cornwallis open to attack. Six torpedoes were fire in fifty minutes, the sixth one striking the Cornwallis amidships on the starboard side. There was a huge column of water, oil and smoke thrown out of No.3 hatch and funnel, and the ship instantly listed to starboard and settled in the water, but righted as soon as rush of water into the ship levelled to the sea.
Details: Immediately after the first torpedo explosion on harbour defence obstruction, was ordered by the Master to get steam on main engines for steaming towards the beach, and when ship was hit, was in the E/R top. He had one boiler Donkey and two with handy steam. There was an explosion and a roar of steam simultaneously, carrying with it steam and oil, up through the skylights.
His first thoughts were of fire, and he went down into the ‘tween alleyway and along to Fidley. Here he shut off fuel unit and opened smothering steam, ten went back along into E/R and shut watertight door. By this time water level was at cylinder tops.
As no more could be done below, went on deck and reported to the Master. From then on, assisted the Master in any way possible. Was one of six of the ship’s own company (exclusive of gunners) who of their own free will volunteered to remain on board after the torpedoing to look after the ship, in spite of danger of another torpedo, the remainder being ordered to the boats with the exception of two others whose services were required aboard.
Mr. Jenkins was included amongst those who worked through the best part of the first night caring for matters of urgency arising out of the disaster, as the ship was making water, and it was not known at first whether she would continue to remain afloat.
During the whole of the subsequent operations, the Chief Engineer and his juniors assisted in everything, rigging tackles, handling lines and cables.
After receiving the pump from shore, he looked after the pumping night and day, and with the Chief Engineer, had it transferred from one hold to the other as was found necessary.
The water had to be kept down in Nos.1, 3 and 4 Holds. Cargo was removed from bulkhead in No.3 Hold to get at open rivet holes through which water was getting into the Hold from the Engine Room.
After plugging seven holes, there was not further increase of water in No.3 Hold. On account of the danger of No.1 Hold filling up through bilge suction pipe from Engine Room, close watch was kept on it until cargo was discharged.
Postscript: On 3 Dec 1944 at 10.00 hours the unescorted Cornwallis was torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat U-1230 about 10 miles South West of Mount Desert Rock in the Gulf of Maine. She was en-route from Barbados to St. John, New Brunswick in Canada carrying a cargo of sugar in bags and molasses in barrels. The master, 35 crew members and seven gunners were lost. Five survivors were picked up by the fishing vessel Notre Dame and landed at Rockland, Maine.
German U-Boat U-514 which first torpedoed the Cornwallis in Barbados was attacked and sunk on 8 July 1943 in the Bay of Biscay by a British B-24 Liberator of 224 Squadron.